I kicked off 2014 with a slightly unconventional objective: spend more face time with our customers.
As OnDeck's first employee, I was the first salesperson, product developer, and marketer, and for years I had been around customers constantly. However, as our company grew from two to 50 to now 270 employees, I found myself increasingly distant from our customers in my day-to-day activities. Heading up a rapidly growing technology company, it's easy to focus on improving your company's products, systems, and operations. While incredibly important, to be successful you have to remember why and who you're improving these things for. And answers to those questions can only come from your customers.
I needed unfiltered and candid feedback straight from our customers, which are small businesses across the country.
My mission? Four cities. Four days. Visit as many customers as possible. I gained invaluable insights after setting out on a nationwide tour earlier this year--some expected, others that caught me by surprise. Here's what I learned:
Your customers are always busy.
The men and women who buy your services and products are busy. This is especially true of small-business owners, who are the CEO, COO, CFO, CMO all wrapped in one for their business. One customer I met ran two hair salons in Tampa, while simultaneously managing an apprenticeship program and developing a plan for a third location, all while maintaining his own salon clientele. Time is literally money for a business owner like this, so respecting your customer's time is essential to an enduring relationship.
What does this mean for you in concrete terms? It means think about every way in which you interact with customers--your online systems, customer-service operations, etc. How can you make these processes easier for your customers? In our case, we expanded to later service hours and weekend service to help people like our hair-salon customer, who clearly isn't working a Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 kind of job. The changes have been enormously well received by our customers and resulted in increased revenue.
Practicality--not the bells and whistles--matter.
Technology is a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of the simplicity of your product. Many of OnDeck's customers use fax machines and have email accounts they check once a week--and that's more than fine by us. Making your products accessible and easy to understand is what makes a customer want to work with you again and again. For example, the continuous scroll trend on websites is beautiful and in style right now, but do customers really want to get carpal tunnel syndrome looking for a customer-service number? If you have to choose between being technologically flashy and being helpful, always choose being helpful. It's what resonates most.
Your customers will be very generous with their time--all you have to do is ask.
I was overwhelmed by the level of dialogue customers were willing to engage in when I visited them in their places of business. Several of the visits lasted for hours, allowing me to ask follow-up questions and gain insights that would have been impossible to get in a phone call or quick meeting. After settling in and getting comfortable with me, customers offered valuable and candid feedback on what OnDeck needs to do to improve.
Take the hair-salon owner, for example: He was really surprised that when he was considering taking a loan from us it was hard for him to find information about OnDeck from his local bank or accountant. Clearly, building brand awareness with local service providers is an area of opportunity for us to pursue, and he gave me some great ideas to take back to the team.
What have you learned from your customers recently? Anything that made you change how you run your business? Please weigh in below in the comments section--I'll be tweeting the responses at @noahbreslow.
Here's more about my recent customer roadshow.